It was, without a doubt, the most traumatic year of my long and happy education. There was heartbreak, and sin, and remonstrance, and lunchroom brawling, and nakedness, and public discipline, and the fabrication of lies, and the making of much macaroni-themed art. I had not known that kindergarten would be so difficult. It was the spring of 1981, and I was just ready for it all to end. Perhaps that's why the question posed by the teacher was so vexing.
"What do you want to be when you grow up?" Mrs. Stock said, writing it on the board.
It’s a hateful question cloaked in whimsy, the sort of prompt that goads children out of fairy tales and into vocational programs, a query rubber-stamped into the curriculum by the sad bureaucratic offspring of John Dewey. I can think of many better questions, designed to teach the marshaling of evidence and to avail itself of the fantastical synaptic behaviors that belong only to children, questions like: Does God have to brush his teeth? What color unicorn flies fastest? And, can we ever be friends with sharks?
But no, we don't ask children to paint pictures of what words do at night, when no one is talking, or to determine how many pieces of chalk can fit inside a beaver dam. Instead, we ask children to brainstorm ideas for their college-admission essay.
When Mrs. Stock asked us what we wanted to be, everyone was terribly confused. I looked around at my classmates, who stared dully at the board as though suffering from severe head trauma. It was hard to know if they were puzzled or just thick. It was a public school.
I was disappointed at my parents for sending me here. Mom taught at a private academy, and I longed to walk those polished hallways, where students had names like Candy and Duncan and wore exciting tartans and plaids. At my government school, though, argyle was a death sentence. The mongrels would eat it off you on the playground. It was bad enough that I carried a briefcase, which was my way of letting people know I was serious about education.
"What was in that briefcase?" you ask.
Hopes and dreams, that's what.
I loved school. I loved homework. I loved raising my hand. I dreamt of having my right arm surgically replaced by the rigid limb of a mannequin. For this, they mocked me. They called me a goober. But I did not take up arms against them. Instead, I prayed that God would afflict their rectums with boils.
My only comforts that year, besides high marks, were women. As soon as our neighborhood was wired for cable, all the girls started removing their clothes. Jenny Barndollar, a strange visage of a girl—with a pageboy and big marmoset eyes and the libido of a thirty-year-old divorcée—kept trying to show her private real estate to me during recess.
"Like on TV," she said.
"Fine," I said.
But I couldn't look. I was eyeballing my furtive mistress across the playground, lust of my lunchbox, Salome of snacktime: Mrs. Jeannie Stock. It didn't matter that she was my teacher. A woman like this could make public education bearable. My love started at the ankles. Could such a bronze uniformity be natural, or was that pantyhose? I reached out during naptime to feel the truth on the tips of my fingers, but she stepped out of reach.
"May I help you?" she asked.
"I must have been dreaming," I whispered.
The legs carried themselves into her pleated wool skirt and up to a tight Victorian blouse with a high ruffled collar that forked out from the valley of her bosom like the roaring cataracts of El Dorado. A pair of prodigious eyeglasses asserted themselves from her elfin nose as though ripped from the Hale Telescope and held in place by magic. Her cheeks were as freckled as a Robin's egg, and atop her face rose an impressive dome of permanent curls that coalesced into an impregnable helmet, as though designed by that great romantic R. Buckminster Fuller.
We schooled one another in the arts of love.
"Get drawing, you people!" she said.
It seemed like all the boys wanted to be astronauts. So banal, so prosaic! Days before, we'd plowed into the cafetorium to witness the first orbital flight of a U.S. Space Shuttle. Of course these dullards wanted to be astronauts. If we had watched the Super Bowl, they would have wanted to be footballs.
I drew a picture of myself making love to Mrs. Stock, even though I did not yet understand the mechanics of it. All I knew, based on several episodes of Guiding Light, was that sex seemed to involve a great deal of licking a woman's face in various locations around large hospitals.
"Interesting," she said. "What are you doing in this picture?"
"Nothing," I said, and tore it up.
Ideas and vocations exploded around me like meteors across the moon. Cowboys, pilots, nurses, gymnasts, etc., etc., etc. Vomit.
I drew myself standing in front of a great square of black.
"What's that?" someone asked.
"He wants to be on TV," they said.
"A weatherman?" they said.
"No, a movie star!"
"It's me in front of a chalkboard," I said.
"Boys aren't teachers," they said.
They were right. What would I tell my father? He was a hoss of a man, a football coach, a layer of asphalt, the kind of man who would doubt the masculinity of anyone caught wearing an oven mitt on purpose. Telling him I wanted to be a teacher would be like telling him I wanted to spend the rest of my life making AIDS quilts.
"He wants to be a lady when he grows up!" they said.
All I wanted when I grew up was to be in school all day, every day. But nearly all the adults at Crump Road Elementary School had mammary glands. I had no role models. The only adult male I could see was the janitor.
And so, I drew a picture of myself as a tall black man. That would shut them the hell up.
"Did you finally decide on something?" Mrs. Stock said, as we formed a line. I took the rearguard, heaving her heady odors into my nasal cavity, the alchemical effluvium of perfume and unwashed children who have soiled themselves throughout the day. We started to file out. I stopped.
"I've decided to become a black man," I said, proud.
"That's just plain silly," she said.
I told her I wanted a hug. This is a woman who would hug a sack of pig intestines if she thought it might comfort some hurt child. But no.
"I don't hug silly boys," she said.
It was different after that. We grew apart, as lovers often do, and I turned my uninspired affections back on Jenny Barndollar. We groped and held hands and played at kissing. The pictures stayed on the wall, policemen and ballerinas, tacked in the corner like icons, a hack altar to the idolatrous god of education.
"I like your picture," Jenny said. "I think you'll make a great black man one day."
"Oh, shut up," I said.
I stopped caring. My handwriting turned primitive. I drew only pictures of tragedy: dead pets, bleeding trees, burning houses. I mixed with the wrong crowd. We explored the furthest reaches of the playground and played doctor. We sharpened popsicle sticks into shivs and extorted milk from the smallest among us. Then, matters came to a head. It was snacktime. I had a baggie full of potato chips. I sat with my crew of ruffians, Tiffany Mashburn and Steven Christmas. To my left, though, was Robbie Wood, a large squinty-eyed turd with a cube-shaped head like Baby Frankenstein who was always stealing other people's food.
"Hey, Robbie just stole one of your chips," Tiffany said.
"Hit him!" Steven said. "I dare you!"
"He won't hit me," Robbie said. "He's just an old black man."
I looked up at Baby Frankenstein, taller than me, and saw a lone fragment of chip on his nose. Who knows what great power possessed me to do it? What I did was extend my fist toward his loutish face in a powerfully straight jab, propelling him off his seat and onto the floor, followed by his carton of chocolate milk, now pouring over him in pools of sweet brown blood. Shocked, I froze in a martial tableau, my right arm still suspended in midair, a sort of tenuous Black Power salute.
The cafetorium roared in wonder and applause and cries of distress and accusation. In a flash, I was flying through the air. Someone carried me like a sack of laundry through the crowd. It was Mrs. Stock.
She tore through snakes of queued children, and my feet didn't touch floor until we reached the office. The principal, a nice lady, tried to look stern, but could not strike fear into a pair of buttocks that had already been whipped by a leather belt held by a man the size of a Soviet tank. She swung and missed and her glasses fell off, eyes bugged out. I cried, to make her feel better.
This ended things for all time with Mrs. Stock. Her Victorian blouse stiffened with annulment, her geodesic mane into an impenetrable equation. She smiled at me, but tight-lipped and grim, a death mask. I slouched toward May, a rough beast hoping to die in the deserts of summer, bereft of the love of the only teacher I'd ever had. That's what I really wanted to be, a teacher. Why hadn’t I just said so? I wanted to stand at the board and declaim secret truths with art. Unlike today, when children must take prerequisites at a community college to enter kindergarten, we had arrived on the first day of school rather helpless. But now, we had control: of ourselves, our handwriting, our bladders.
On the last day of class, they piled the whole school into the cafetorium again. All were happy. Playful fracas broke out in the bathrooms. Older kids with braces injected their tongues into the scaffolding of one another's mouths. Blurs of boys cut through the hallways, little girls choreographed joyful dances to inspire final jealousies. I sat in the middle of the assembly, despondent driftwood in a sea of ecstasy. I just wanted to go home.
The lights dimmed and there she was, Mrs. Stock, on the stage. There were awards, she explained, and as the kindergarten teacher, she was first.
"We only have one award to give out," she said. It was called the Citizenship Award, in recognition of something she called "student character." We were shocked. Why hadn't we been told? We'd have done things differently. We'd have behaved, cared.
"And this award goes to…Miss Jenny Barndollar!" Jenny's mouth fell open, and so did ours. She was the closest thing in kindergarten to a slut. Jenny ran to the stage. But it was not over. "And the young man receiving our Citizenship Award this year is—"
She called my name. What? My classmates high-fived and hugged me, even Baby Frankenstein. What was happening?
"Come on up, Mr. Key!"
I floated through the awards ceremony, drunk with achievement. They had cheered for me. They applauded. What a glorious place, this school. I wanted to move in, to never leave.
An hour later, we lined up in our classroom for the very last time. Again, I worked my way to the rear of the queue. Finally, we were alone. Mrs. Stock handed me my Citizenship Award for the second time that day, sealed for parental review. I slipped the certificate inside my briefcase.
"I always knew you were special," she said.
"But why?" I asked. I baited her to praise. I needed it.
"It’s that briefcase," she said. "It makes you look like a little teacher."
She kissed me on the cheek and sent me packing. Glory. I walked home two feet off the sidewalk. It was hot, and the Memphian summer had descended like the armpit of God.
The briefcase was heavy, and I emptied it into the gutter, saving only my award, which I tucked under my shirt for protection. I missed school already, my teacher, my friends. I should not have treated my classmates so cruelly. I wished for them good and happy lives, and I regretted praying for their anal discomfort. And I walked home with my empty briefcase, full of nothing but hopes and dreams.